The Best Breathing Techniques For Tattoos

Tattoos hurt, there’s no way around it. But surprisingly, you don’t necessarily need to try expensive numbing creams or pain relief to reduce the pain of your tattoo. By practicing some simple breathing techniques, you can drastically reduce tattoo pain, and any anxiety you might be feeling about the tattooing process.

I have two breathing exercises that I have found work best for getting tattooed – one to reduce my anxiety levels on the day of the tattoo, and one to reduce the pain felt during the tattoo. Both of them focus on steadying your mind and emotions, as well as relaxing tense muscles.

Why do breathing exercises help with tattoo pain?

When you get tattooed and start to feel pain, a whole host of things start happening to your body. When the needles enter your skin, nerve cells in the area detect the sensation, and transmit ‘pain’ signals to your brain. The brain then starts to regulate and relay those signals to the rest of your body. As well as the feeling of pain itself, these signals also cause physiological reactions, including shallow or rapid breathing, increased heart rate and the involuntary tightening of muscles, which can both serve to make pain feel even worse.

Breathing techniques help to interrupt the severity of those signals and their effects. When you breathe deeply and consistently, your body releases hormones which help to reduce muscle tension and nerve pressure. As well as easing the effects on your body, breathing techniques also help to reduce the mental and emotional effects of pain by focusing your thoughts and reducing stress levels.

Breathing techniques to reduce anxiety before your tattoo

If you suffer from anxiety, the lead up to your tattoo can be worse than the tattoo itself. Your mind knows that it’s about to go through a stressful experience, and starts subconsciously preparing you for the worst. Going into a tattoo appointment already feeling stressed and anxious is not fun (trust me), so doing some breathing exercises on the morning of your tattoo is a great way of combating this.

I have tried a few different breathing exercises to help with anxiety before tattoos, and while they all helped this is the one I have found works best. There’s a few different names for it, but you’ll most commonly hear it referred to as ‘box breathing’. Start by sitting somewhere comfortable or lying down, then follow the steps below.

  1. Breathe in slowly through your nose for 4 seconds
  2. Hold that breath in for 4 seconds (try to relax your face while doing this)
  3. Exhale slowly for 4 seconds
  4. Pause for 4 seconds at the end of your exhale, then repeat the process again with a 4 second inhale

You can use the GIF below to practice box breathing:

Repeat the process for 4 minutes, and you should feel much more relaxed and less anxious by the end of it. It can also help to do this to music to help focus your mind on the breathing – any kind of meditation music will work well for this. If four seconds is too long, you can reduce the time of each step. Likewise, as you get better at it you can increase the time. Just make sure each step is always consistent.

On the day of a tattoo I will try to do this breathing exercise three times. 

First, I’ll do it as soon as I wake up to get rid of any pre-tattoo anxiety. 

Next, I’ll do it in my car when I’ve parked up before my appointment to calm myself down before walking into the studio itself (mostly because I know I will be meeting new people which also makes me anxious). If I’m getting the train, I’ll do it just before my stop.

Finally, I’ll go to the bathroom in the studio just before the artist is about to apply the stencil and perform the box breathing one more time. This ensures I’m as relaxed as possible before the tattoo starts.

How to breathe during a tattoo

Now that you’ve gone into your tattoo appointment as relaxed as possible by using box breathing, it’s time to deal with the pain of the tattoo itself. Breathing exercises during a tattoo are slightly different, as you want to directly address pain whilst making sure you aren’t distracting the artist too much. 

Keeping your breathing steady during a tattoo helps to take your focus off the pain, and ensures your muscles stay relaxed. This will reduce pain levels and make sure you stay as still as possible to help the artist.

Some people talk about breathing in when the needle hits your skin and breathing out when it leaves your skin, but I’ve found this puts too much focus on the pain sensation itself and doesn’t allow you to disassociate and stay relaxed. Holding your breath for too long will make you naturally tense up and increase discomfort. So unless your artist directly requests that you breathe like this, I’d suggest avoiding it.

What I’ve found best for me is to adapt a consistent breathing technique that focuses my mind and relaxes my body. I always do this with my eyes closed no matter where I’m getting tattooed. Tattoo artists really won’t mind you closing your eyes, especially if it helps you sit better for the tattoo. Start by completely relaxing all of your muscles, then follow the steps below.

  1. Inhale slowly through your nose to the ‘top’ of your breath (until you can’t comfortably breathe in anymore)
  2. Exhale slowly through your mouth until you’ve emptied your lungs
  3. On each breath in and out, focus completely on the air leaving or entering your lungs

This is a great mindfulness breathing exercise which will help to distract you from the pain of your tattoo. You’ll quickly be able to get into a rhythm with it, and by focusing on the consistent breathing sensation you’ll centre your mind and reduce pain.

With these two breathing techniques you should find the overall tattooing experience to be much more enjoyable, with less feelings of anxiety beforehand and lower pain levels during your tattoo. My last piece of advice is to practice these breathing techniques a few times before the day of your appointment, so they’re almost second nature by the time you’re getting your tattoo.

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